We’ve all had our fair share of client horror stories.
There are the clients who expect to host 250 guests on a $15,000 budget, and there are those who feel entitled to call us in the wee hours of the morning to discuss napkin folds. While these examples might seem a bit exaggerated, we’ve definitely faced clients with unrealistic expectations who leave us wondering how to let them down gently.
It’s important to remember that when planning an event for a client, we are the experts. We’ve planned countless celebrations and have been through all of the hoops and hurdles. Naturally, it can feel awkward and even offensive when a client purports to know more than you. It can also get in the way of the actual progress you’re making on their event, so this kind of behavior needs to be nipped in the bud.
Creating boundaries and setting expectations is especially critical now, considering many events are getting postponed to a later date due to the pandemic. There will naturally be a lot of questions and concerns surrounding this process, so you need to be prepared to set the script for how it will play out for your client.
Let’s explore a few ways to get your point across, set those boundaries, and enjoy a mutually respectful relationship with your client.
Be crystal clear in your contract.
Your contract is the best way to convey expectations and boundaries, as your clients must give it the OK in order to move forward. At any point, you can pull up the signed contract to remind them of the agreement. It’s also essential for protecting your business, as you can terminate a client for breach of contract—but only if they’ve broken a rule already stated in your contract.
This is a good place to outline the best methods and times to reach you; be clear about response time, and give yourself enough space that you don’t feel pressured. You can also set expectations for what is and isn’t included in their package, client responsibilities, timeline and budget.
Become an educator.
Although you’re the professional, many clients think they know what’s best because they are the ones who are paying the bill. If you’re working with a difficult client who refuses to see eye to eye with you, keep your approach gentle and approach it as a learning opportunity.
Break things down for them so they can better understand the full picture. It’s not just the fact that their venue can’t accommodate their guest count--other issues are fire codes, floor plans, and the caterer’s need for serving lanes. If you back up your points with knowledge, it won’t feel like a flat “no,” because your clients will understand the reasoning behind the “no.”
Be prepared with alternatives.
Being an event professional is being a problem-solver. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a caterer, stationer, planner, florist or photographer--we all serve our clients by solving their problems. Sometimes, it’s as easy as changing a number in a spreadsheet; other times, we’re left to figure out a solution that will keep our client happy.
It’s always best to be prepared, so it’s important to go into client meetings with plenty of alternatives to walk through with them. You can’t say “no” without offering another option; it might not be the same as the original idea, but your job is to provide them with their event vision to the best of your abilities. They must be realistic about what is achievable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go above and beyond in finding an adequate substitution.
Don’t be afraid to walk away.
Part of setting boundaries to protect your business is knowing when it’s time to walk away. This typically aligns with a breach of contract (as mentioned above) and, oftentimes, it’s not the first offense. It’s worth being patient with clients as they learn the parameters of working with you, but in some cases, it will become clear that a client isn’t respecting you or your business, despite attempts to remedy the situation.
In this case, you can assume that repeat offenders will continue to push your buttons, so it might be in your best interest to dissolve the working relationship and fill that space with a client who will treat you with more respect. Again, this is why it’s vital that your contract outlines everything from the get-go and your client is clear on what to expect from your partnership.
Most disagreements are due to miscommunication rather than an actual issue, so always do what you can to be detailed and specific about your boundaries. Likewise, let them know if you are making an exception for them--for example, if you don’t typically take meetings on Saturday but are able to accommodate them one weekend, be clear that it’s a one-time case and not a change to your policies.
Setting boundaries with clients can feel a bit uncomfortable at first, especially if you’re used to answering to them. Remember that boundaries are the best way to protect yourself and your business from being taken advantage of and stretched too thin.
Jennifer Taylor is the principal of Jen Taylor Consulting, a consulting firm that works with creative businesses of all sizes to implement streamlined workflows and organized systems to find more time and space for business growth and personal development. She is also the owner and founder of Taylor’d Event Group, a leading event planning company that serves local and destination clients in Washington State and Maui, Hawaii.